Rape, race and fragments of truth

Allegations of violent sex crimes by black gangs ignited a firestorm. Aminatta Forna reports
Click to follow
There used to be a fictional moral quandary debated in liberal circles. It was called "the white woman's dilemma". It goes like this: a white woman is walking down a street and sees a group of black men hanging out. What does she do? If she crosses the street she seems paranoid, even prejudiced. But if she continues, and her worst fears are realised, the consequences would be far worse than being thought a racist. The dilemma reflects the inability of white people, when push comes to shove, to relinquish the spectre of the black man as a potential rapist. Certainly not when the protection of white women is concerned. Thursday's Dispatches (C4) raised the apparition again.

The programme claimed to have uncovered a growing phenomenon: that of gang rape. According to the programme makers the victims and their attackers have two things in common - they are very young (half of those involved were under 14) and they are, typically, black. It was explosive material and caused a firestorm even before the programme was aired. Twenty academics approached refused to take part in the programme. A demonstration was threatened outside Channel 4's studios. The debate which followed the programme, chaired by Darcus Howe, was heated but unenlightening. Away from the TV studios and out on the street, black men feel furious, humiliated and criminalised.

Unfortunately, the film by Laurel Productions loses immediate credibility by being aired within Channel 4's sex-saturated autumn schedule. It is tabloid TV, shock-horror rape stories alongside hours of titillation. Certainly the programme gives us all the details: the three girls repeatedly raped by a gang on separate floors of the same block, each boy taking his turn with a different girl; the 14 year old rape victim who couldn't walk properly for three months after being raped over and over for two hours.

The programme painted a picture of a gang rape epidemic involving black boys and girls. The evidence was the makers' own "survey", conducted "by speaking to police forces, courts and court reporters nationwide," said reporter Deborah Davies. Alarm bells rang immediately. Investigative journalism aside, surely a subject as inflammatory as this - particularly when the producers intend to draw broad conclusions based on their findings - needs to be rooted in an independent, academically rigorous study? It would have been well worth the money to commission one. Dispatches uncovered 14 cases involving 79 youths, since 1996. Disturbing as this news is - does it really amount to an epidemic? There were over 3,000 reported rapes last year, so 14 doesn't sound like very many. What is the rate of growth? How does it compare to the previous two years, the previous ten years? All questions that go unanswered.

Dispatches says its survey showed that 80 per cent of the juvenile perpetrators involved were black. As a percentage that sounds overwhelming, but in fact they are talking about 63 boys. As a friendly academic observed, with figures that small it is hard to draw meaningful conclusions. You could probably look for every defendant with a certain letter occurring in his name and make a film out of that.

But within the shadows of the collective psyche lurks the bogeyman, the black rapist. Suddenly that's the spin. "Proofs" are found, linear not lateral thinking takes over. Without the spectre the film couldn't exist, would never work. If I found 14 black hang gliders could I persuade Channel 4 to commission a film on this new trend? The central point of the film is that these rapes occur in the context of gang violence and the juveniles are involved in numerous other criminal activities through their gangs. It's a film about young, vicious and yes, predominantly black gangs whose repertoire of violence includes gang rape of young girls within their own community. That does not make it a story about black rape.

Dispatches was wrong to try to portray these incidents as a trend without the proof, but right to relate these specific acts of violence to the context in which they arise. Every community has its dirty secrets, those things that are recognised within the group but which are not aired outside. They are matters of shame, and might attract criticism or confirm prejudice. Black women have guarded the secret of a street culture of misogyny, of sexual harassment that happens in places like Brixton (where half the 14 cases occurred, and where I once lived). The depraved sexism of so many rap lyrics, which virtually incite sexual violence, has outraged black women at the same time as white liberals puff and blow about artistic freedom, cultural expression and the reality of violence on the streets - as if they knew anything about it. Many black women feel angry and neglected, for it seems as though their treatment matters less because, in an absurd display of cultural relativism, it is regarded by the wider community as "a black thing". The casualness of the crimes, as portrayed by Dispatches, was utterly chilling.

The programme unearthed and gave us examples of this culture of hyper- machismo. Chris, one young interviewees regards most girls as sexual meat and fair game. "If a girl's coming on to you, that's not rape. A little struggle's not rape," he says. And then in response to a direct question from Deborah Davies he confirms that the struggling is "part of the fun". Even more shockingly, he was describing incidents involving several boys and one girl.

The alienation of these young boys from the rest of the society was examined. And surely the growing distance between African Caribbean men and women must be part of the same rationale. While some men continue to boast of their "baby mothers", the relative success, greater employment rates, higher educational attainment of black women begins to make the men look more like disposable sperm donors than caliphs in charge of a harem. With their macho strutting, obscene language and calculated hardness the boys at the centre of the programme had come to inhabit their own stereotype at the same time as their sisters seem to be breaking free of theirs.

Do these boys rape because they are black? Clearly not. But it is self- evident to anyone who accepts that rape is a crime of hate and not of sexual desire (as feminists have long argued) that the influences and attitudes surrounding these boys are almost as much to blame as the juveniles themselves. In making this programme, Dispatches' contribution is in demonstrating that the crime of rape is rooted in sociological and cultural causes.

Early in my own TV career I was told to research a possible programme on black mugging. I remember that the figures made interesting reading. It was true that black men were over-represented in terms of the statistics for street robbery. Also true, but of no apparent interest to my then boss, was that most ethnic groups (taking all relevant factors into account) seemed to have a "crime of choice". Virtually all paedophiles, for example, are white. But we do not racialise that sexual offence, asking why white men are more prone to it. Perhaps Channel 4 should.